First Victories of Russian Military Advisers – Part I

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Units, loyal to the Syrian government had to be built from scratch

First Victories of Russian Military Advisers - Part I

Written by Alexey Ramm; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by James Cooksey exclusively for SouthFront

Last week, Syrian government troops have reported several successes, particularly in the North-West of the country in the so-called enclave Salma, where in November of 2015 Russian bomber SU-24M was shot down. Though complete eradication of militants from the area is yet to be achieved, but thanks to the robust and decisive actions of Syrian forces they were able to take the town of Salma under control.

Syrian Arab Army (SAA) made these gains with great difficulty. And yet it should be noted: in comparison with the last year’s operations in the same area, in fact the positional “meat grinder” when government forces took over some minor hilltop while suffering heavy casualties only to surrender it few hours later, the professionalism and training of Damascus armed forces is steadily increasing.

SAA owes its success not only to the Russian air wing, but also to the military advisors and specialists on the ground, who are training personnel and helping them to familiarize with new military equipment.

Damascus Forces

Damascus has summoned our military advisors long before the outbreak of the civil war. Quite a large number of Syrian soldiers had studied at Russian military institutions, particularly in the Academy of General Staff.

“In the platoon of supposedly 20 to 30 people there were de facto no more than ten fighters, including the commander»

According to the representative of the Russian MOD familiar with the pre-war situation, the main problem was SAA shortage of trained fighters. “While officers were sufficiently trained, sergeants and especially with privates posed real problems. There weren’t any deployed brigades, regiments across the country which are required in wartime. In case of war, they were planning to be reinforced with reservists. All the specialists, signalmen, gunners, engineers, etc. were assigned only on paper. Actually it’s just guys with guns, who don’t know how to shoot properly”, – he tells “MIC” reporter.

The military and political leadership in Syria maintained a high degree of readiness in only few mechanized brigades, the Republican guard and Special Forces. But even these units are usually only 70% manned.

“Only two divisions of the Syrian special forces had excellent training before the war. However, in our understanding is most likely an analogue VDV (airborne Special Forces). The Republican guard is well- equipped and staffed. In fact, this is an army within army. These guard units have artillery, airborne troops and special purpose forces of their own. SAA was manned mostly by conscripts and the Republican guards were professional soldiers,” explained the representative of the Ministry of defense, who is familiar with pre-war state of Syrian army.

It is noteworthy that before the start of the civil war with the assistance of Russian advisors, the SAA held exercise deployment of several divisions, reservists were drafted, and armor were reactivated from storages.

With the first battles in 2011 the number of Russian military advisers and specialists has declined sharply.  Judging by the photos of military radio reconnaissance center on the mountain tal al-Hara near Dara’a captured in 2014 by the Free Syrian Army fighters, Russian personnel there had evacuated long ago. Although not entire Russian contingent had left Syria. Our experts continued to provide assistance to the Damascus armed forces, teaching soldiers to use supplied weapons and military equipment, in particular the MLRS “Smerch” and “Uragan”.

Causes of casualties

The main problem of the Syrian army in the civil war was the high rate of trained personnel loss. The soldiers, sergeants and officers not only died in battle, but large number defected to the opposition and terrorist groups.

First victories of Russian advisors — part I

SAA command attempted to compensate for the shortage of manpower with massive use of tanks and other armored vehicles. For a long time the symbol of the Syrian civil war was video footage of government’s T-72, T-55, BMP-1, leading the assault in urban areas.

The leadership tried several times to solve the problem of lack of personnel with carrying out partial mobilization. But to no avail. In the end, bet were made on volunteer units, formed in the districts and towns which armed population was supposed to protect their homes and families.

But if in remaining small units of the SAA military training was at least organized, the volunteers – ordinary civilians, without the required combat skills, were just armed by the government ordered to counter the terrorists. Although only a small part of volunteers were directly involved in the fighting. The bulk were serving at checkpoints and patrolling the area. Another serious problem is that volunteer units fight only on for local lands, and refuse to obey the orders of transfer to other areas.

With the beginning of the Russian Air Forces operations in Syria, government was unable to immediately reverse the situation. Despite the massive use of tanks, APS and artillery, securing victories required trained personnel.

According to the “Military-industrial courier”, simultaneously with the deployment of the air brigade at “Hmeymim” airbase at the international airport of Basil al-Assad in the fall of 2015, the Russian leadership has increased the number of military advisors and trainers, who were facing two important issues. First, to create a number of battle-ready, independent brigades and battalions. Second, to establish evacuation and repair chain of damaged armored vehicles.

It should be noted that by 2015 the problem of repairing damaged combat vehicles was very serious for the Syrian command. Upon saturation of the terrorist groups with relatively modern anti-tank missiles the government losses of military equipment also grew. And “Syrian Express” (the informal name of military assistance from RF) couldn’t replenish them swiftly. According to sources, familiar with the situation, the main material loss of Syrian government forces was wrecked armor, abandoned on the battlefield, which could be evacuate, repaired and returned to duty.

It is clear that with this attitude toward evacuation and repair procedures even continuous robust military assistance, including the supply of the latest T-90 tanks, heavy flamethrower systems and artillery won’t save the situation.

Back to action

The Russian MOD doesn’t like to demonstrate the presence of military advisers and experts, but also does not deny it. As already noted, various social networks and video hostings present a lot of stories about the work of the Russian military in Syria (“MIC”, №№ 1-2, 2016 – “The trail of our infantry”). Field of operation for them is massive. In the video, which shows the training of the Syrian volunteer-snipers, who learn to handle SVD, poor training of the fighters is clearly visible.

According to the “Military-industrial courier”, work with paramilitary groups was the most difficult one. Despite the fact that many members of the militia had seen several years of war, few people knew how to properly shoot, move on the battlefield, not to mention weak physical training. Volunteer commanders, mostly selected by fighters themselves are often unable to properly make decisions in complex situations, to competently lead the soldiers not only in battle but in everyday life on the front-line.

The big problem still remains the discipline of personnel, which usually manned the checkpoints throughout the war and is rarely engaged in normal combat training. Also, according to available data, the problem of the exo-territoriality remained unsolved. Thus militia is ready to defend only their hometowns and was reluctant to move to other areas.

In fact, volunteers had to be taught the basics. First, individual training, then training as a part of divisions, platoons, and only then the entire battalion.

Regular government troops have not only bigger combat experience, but also are much more disciplined. Still there is shortage of competent officers and sergeants in the SAA, because, as already mentioned, of serious civil war losses.

But if an individual training of its fighters is at a relatively high level, teaching troops, even Special Forces regiments to work as part of the squad, platoon, company and battalion had to begin, as with local militia, from a scratch.

Another problem was that the Syrian regular units were low on manpower. According to available data, in the platoon of formally 20 to 30 people there were only around ten “live” fighters, including the commander.

No less complicated task for the Russian military advisers and instructors was the organization of coordination between commanders of brigades, divisions and military authorities. Until recently, the fighting in Syria was actually chaotic movement of militias, separate companies and battalions of the Syrian regular army in different directions, often even without a single plan.

According to the source of “Military-industrial Courier” familiar with the situation, the discord of Pro-government forces was the biggest problem. In particular, artillery units and pilots, acted independently in most cases, without thinking about ground troops.

Exact info for how long combat training for a single battalion of the SAA or militia lasts, were not disclosed. We can assume that we are talking about the period of no less than six months. In particular, if the first units of the Pro-government forces under the leadership of Russian instructors began training in September 2015, than their combat debut became the battle for “the Salma enclave “, which became an undeniable success.

Instructed Syrian units receive new field uniform, bullet-proof vests, protective helmets, particular the Russian 6 B43, 6 B45 and 6 B27, straight from the shop or from the inventory of the Russian army. For example, 6 B45 armor taken from dead Syrian soldier, transferred from warehouses of the Russian armed forces, with old nametag of the former owner was used by IS militants as proof that they allegedly killed by Russian soldier. Judging by photos and video footage, the Russian military also convey to Syrian colleagues small arms: assault and sniper rifles, machine guns.

Pro-government troops receive two-axis trucks GAZ-3308 “Sadko” which were replaced in the Russian army by the new “Mustangs” and transferred to base storage. Unfortunately, some of those have fallen into the hands of terrorist organization as trophies as a result of recent clashes in the East of Syria, according to photos distributed by IS.

According to our calculations, over the past six months with the help of Russian advisors at least one brigade of the Free Syrian army and some militia units were trained and rearmed with new equipment. Our military experts and advisors have achieved significant success in the training of the Syrian military. Units loyal to Damascus are already starting to coordinate their actions not only with each other but also with aviation, artillery support, etc. However, increased professionalism is only seen in forces operating mainly in the district of Salma, where, most likely, training is focused.

But one cannot underestimate one’s enemy. While there was a successful offensive by Syrian troops at the Turkish border, in the East of the country near Deir ez-Zor the Islamists successfully counterattacked loyalists, taking a large number of trophies.

To be continued…

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